Mercutio jests with Romeo, musing that Mab, the bringer of dreams, has visited his lovesick friend. At the beginning of Mercutio's speech Mab seems a whimsical creation, much like the fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream. But we soon realize that Mercutio's Queen Mab is a malevolent hag who punishes "unchaste" ladies by blistering their lips and making knots in their hair that cause horrid oozing sores (for commentary on the passage, please see Romeo and Juliet (1.4)). Mercutio's Queen Mab speech parallels the atmosphere of oppression in the play and Mab herself can be viewed as representing the vindictive establishment of Verona that impedes the young lovers. Note the similarities between Mab and the "foul fiend Flibbertigibbet" described by Edgar in King Lear. Flibbertigibbet blinds victims with cataracts ("the web and the pin") and causes children to be born with the much-dreaded cleft lip ("makes the hare-lip"):
This is the foul fiend Flibbertigibbet: he begins
at curfew, and walks till the first cock; he gives
the web and the pin, squints the eye, and makes the
hare-lip; mildews the white wheat, and hurts the
poor creature of earth. (3.4)
The following is Mercutio's full speech and a paraphrase in contemporary English. For more on the dramatic function of Mercutio's Queen Mab speech, please click here.
O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies' midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore-finger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men's noses as they lie asleep;
Her wagon-spokes made of long spinners' legs,
The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,
The traces of the smallest spider's web,
The collars of the moonshine's watery beams,
Her whip of cricket's bone, the lash of film,
Her wagoner a small grey-coated gnat,
Not so big as a round little worm
Prick'd from the lazy finger of a maid;
Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o' mind the fairies' coachmakers.
And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lovers' brains, and then they dream of love;
O'er courtiers' knees, that dream on court'sies straight,
O'er lawyers' fingers, who straight dream on fees,
O'er ladies ' lips, who straight on kisses dream,
Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues,
Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are:
Sometime she gallops o'er a courtier's nose,
And then dreams he of smelling out a suit;
And sometime comes she with a tithe-pig's tail
Tickling a parson's nose as a' lies asleep,
Then dreams, he of another benefice:
Sometime she driveth o'er a soldier's neck,
And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats,
Of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades,
Of healths five-fathom deep; and then anon
Drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes,
And being thus frighted swears a prayer or two
And sleeps again. This is that very Mab
That plats the manes of horses in the night,
And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs,
Which once untangled, much misfortune bodes:
This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,
That presses them and learns them first to bear,
Making them women of good carriage.
O, then, I see Queen Mab has paid you a visit.
She is the fairy responsible for dreaming, assuming a shape
No bigger than an image engraved on a stone in the ring
On the index finger of a politician,
Drawn (in her chariot) by a team of creatures as tiny as atoms
Across the noses of men as they lie asleep;
Her wagon-spokes are made of long spiders' legs,
The cover is made of grasshoppers' wings,
The harness is made of the smallest spider's web,
The collars (around their necks) are made of thin moonbeams,
Her whip is made of a cricket's bone, the lash is made of film,
Her charioteer is a small grey mosquito,
Not even as big as a parasite
Pulled off the lazy finger of a maid;
Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut
Made by the carpenter squirrel or old worm,
(Who have been) the fairies' coach-makers since time began.
And with this splendour she gallops night after night
Through the brains of lovers, and then they dream of love;
Over the knees of courtiers, that dream on bowing to gain favour at Court,
Over the fingers of lawyers, who immediately dream of fees,
Over the lips of ladies, who immediately dream of kisses,
Who the angry Mab often plagues with blisters,
Because they have eaten candied fruit to sweeten their breath:
Sometimes she gallops over the nose of a courtier,
And then he dreams of some promotion within the Court;
And sometimes she comes with the tail of a pig intended to pay the Church,
Tickling a minister's nose as he lies asleep,
And then he dreams of another way to increase his income:
Sometimes she drives over the neck of a soldier,
And then he dreams of cutting foreign throats,
Of breaches, ambushes, the finest swords (thought to be Spanish),
Of toasting friends with overflowing cups; and then right away
He hears drums in his ear (for battle), which startles and wakes him,
And, being frightened, he says a hollow prayer or two
And sleeps again. This is that very Mab
That tangles the manes of horses in the night,
And plasters on bloody knots in the hair of sluttish women,
The untangling of which brings much misfortune (either the ire of Mab or possibly infection):
This is the hag, who, when virgins lie on their backs,
Pushes on them and teaches them to stand the act (of intercourse),
Making them able to bear the load (of their husbands' weight).
Shakespeare's reference to Queen Mab, the well-known fairy in Celtic (Irish) folklore famous centuries before Shakespeare, was the first known reference to her in English literature. After Shakespeare introduced Mab to English poets, she became quite popular, inspiring other great authors. Please see Shakespeare Fairies for much more on Queen Mab and Act 1, Scene 4 of Romeo and Juliet for full explanatory notes.
Ben Jonson recounted the tale of Queen Mab during his performance before Anne of Denmark (the wife of James I) as she journeyed from Scotland to England in 1603 (his performance was later printed as Jonson's Entertainment at Althorpe). The following is an excerpt relating to Mab:
This is Mab, the mistris-Faerie,
That doth nightly rob the dayrie;
And she can hurt, or helpe the cherning,
(As shee please) without discerning...
In 1627, Michael Drayton wrote a fairy poem called Nimphidia. Nimphidia, an attendant on Queen Mab, tells the poet everything that happens at Mab's court:
And thou, Nymphidia, gentle fay,
Which meeting me upon the way
These secrets didst to me bewray,
Which I now am in telling;
My pretty light fantastic maid,
I here invoke thee to my aid,
That I may speak what thou hast said,
In numbers smoothly swelling.
This palace standeth in the air,
By necromancy placed there,
That it no tempests needs to fear,
Which way soe'er it blow it.
And somewhat southward toward the noon,
Whence lies a way up to the moon,
And thence the Fairy can as soon
Pass to the earth below it.
The walls of spiders' legs are made,
Well mortised and finely laid;
He was the master of his trade
It curiously builded;
The most famous work to feature Queen Mab is by the Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley. In 1813, Shelley wrote a poem in nine cantos called Queen Mab. Cantos I and II focus on Mab in her time-chariot:
'I am the Fairy Mab: to me 'tis given
The wonders of the human world to keep;
The secrets of the immeasurable past,
In the unfailing consciences of men,
Those stern, unflattering chroniclers, I find;
The future, from the causes which arise
In each event, I gather; not the sting
Which retributive memory implants
In the hard bosom of the selfish man,
Nor that ecstatic and exulting throb
Which virtue's votary feels when he sums up
The thoughts and actions of a well-spent day,
Are unforeseen, unregistered by me;
And it is yet permitted me to rend
The veil of mortal frailty, that the spirit,
Clothed in its changeless purity, may know
How soonest to accomplish the great end
For which it hath its being, and may taste
That peace which in the end all life will share.
This is the meed of virtue; happy Soul,
Ascend the car with me!' (Canto I 167-86)
How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. Queen Mab.Shakespeare Online. 18 Sept. 2009. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/romeoandjuliet/romeoqueenmab.html >.
Morgan, James Appleton. A study in the Warwickshire dialect; with a glossary and notes touching the Edward the Sixth grammar schools and the Elizabethan pronunciation as deduced from the puns in Shakespeare's plays. London: Richard Field, 1899.
Schmidt, Alexander. Shakespeare Lexicon. Berlin: G. Reimer, 1902.
A pun is a play upon words that makes us laugh because the word or phrase used references another word of identical pronunciation but with a much different meaning. Shakespeare loved puns, as is evident in Mercutio's dialogue throughout the play. However, some of the puns are confusing to modern readers because we are generally unfamiliar with the Warwickshire dialect and terms common in Shakespeare's day. Mercutio says, "Thy wit is a very bitter sweeting; it is a most sharp sauce" (2.4), but to appreciate the pun we have to know that a bitter sweeting was a variety of sour apple in Shakespeare's England. Shakespeare seems to have enjoyed shocking the audience with bawdy puns and there are many in Romeo and Juliet. For more please see 1.4.19-29; 2.1.29-31; 2.4.101-102, etc.
Review of Act 1, Scene 5... Tybalt is disgusted by Capulet's weakness, and leaves the party in a rage. Romeo decides he should leave as well, but first he stops to speak at least a word to Juliet. Dressed as a pilgrim to the Holy Land, Romeo addresses Juliet in character, pretending that he has just come upon a most holy shrine. They exchange pleasantries and Juliet, equally smitten with the handsome Romeo, grants him a kiss. Juliet is promptly called away by her mother, and Romeo learns from the Nurse that she is the daughter of his father's enemy, Capulet. Deeply troubled by this knowledge, Romeo exits the hall with Benvolio and Capulet's other guests. When everyone has left, Juliet probes the Nurse for information about the stranger with whom she has fallen madly in love. The Nurse tells her that his name is Romeo and he is a Montague. Like Romeo, Juliet is grieved to hear such news and she cries "My only love sprung from my only hate!/Too early seen unknown, and known too late!" (1.5.140-1) as the first act draws to a close. Read on...